Wednesday, January 13, 2010

We readThe conventional wisdom among Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and (South African Communist Party) SACP strategists, and many other commentators, in business, civil society and opposition parties, is that exploding poverty should naturally strengthen the power of the Left within the African National Congress (ANC) tripartite alliance. Yet the reverse may actually hold true.Rising poverty may actually strengthen populist, and tribalist and narrow nationalist politics in South Africa, rather than Left or progressive politics.

One of the costs of severe mass poverty is mass alienation, mass family breakdown, mass breakdown in individual self-esteem, especially in our country, where self-worth is now increasingly measured in how much money one has. Mass poverty may also cause mass rejection of democracy as solution to problems. In the South African context, in moments of crisis, people often seek solace in tradition, tribe, identity and patriarchy, to affirm, gain dignity or self-respect. These frequently are translated into over-assertions of African or blackness, or ethnicity expressed in over-emphasis on Zulu-ness or Xhosa-ness as the main source of identity.

In fact, rapid changes in society, associated with increased poverty, and alienation – and the Sanco leadership’s inability to respond to this – are partially to blame for the organisation being on the verge of extinction. Some populist leaders in the ANC with a more developed political antenna have already exploited these changes in society, caused by mass poverty. They have made their platform adopting supposedly left positions such as ‘nationalisation’, when it comes to economics; but combining it with social conservatism, approving of polygamy and virginity testing; and adopting muscular policies to deal with social problems, such as the ‘shoot-to-kill’ and ask questions later policy to bring down crime.

Increasing poverty and job losses will reduce the membership base, coherence and strength of Cosatu. Most of those who lose jobs are typical trade union members. The poor – jobless, homeless, rural peasants and young, are now in electoral terms the overwhelming majority. With a smaller base, the trade union federation will face the danger of becoming a ‘labour aristocracy’, of organising only a small working class base who has jobs.The SACP is organised as an elite movement, with a relatively small membership, typically trade unionists, students and those working in civil society. As more and more South Africans become poorer, the membership of the SACP, many also become unrepresentative of the majority mass poor.

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